GEOGRAPHY, POWER AND POLITICS: BOOK REVIEW OF “PRISONERS OF GEOGRAPHY” BY TIM MARSHALL

To gain a deeper understanding of the world we live in, we need knowledge of geography. Geography and politics go hand in hand, hence, the word geopolitics. Geopolitics is about international relations, as influenced by geographical factors. Geography is what makes us who we are, as Tim Marshall, author of Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics (Elliott & Thompson, 2016) says, the land on which we live has always shaped us. One reason how a young nation like the USA became a global superpower is its geographical location and abundance of natural resources found there, not excluding slavery.

In contrast, Africa with plenty of lands rich in natural resources has been unable to reap similar benefits like the developed Western nations. This enigma has always puzzled me, why Sub-Saharan Africa is underdeveloped. Tim Marshall writes that there are two logical explanations for Sub-Saharan Africa’s lack of progress and neither has anything to do with brainpower. The main reason is the Sahara Desert isolates and disconnects the Northern Africa from the rest of the continent. Competition or the lack of it played a significant role. It can be argued that it is the disruptive forces that are vital for creativity and growth as well as innovations and inventions.

Even when the outside world knocked on Africa’s doors, first the Arabs and then the Europeans, seeking trade opportunities, the rivers in Africa and the beautiful waterfalls appeared unsuitable for transporting goods deeper inland. What are still missing in Sub-Saharan African are plentiful deep seaports that are vital for large ships carrying containers. Without suitable infrastructure in place, the development will remain slow for Africa. Corruption has allowed the region to accumulate huge debts, making the future for the people bleaker than it needs to be.

Unlike Africans, those living in the Middle East cannot blame geographical location for their lack of progress. In the past, blaming Israel for all the ills has been the modus operandi of the despotic Arab leadership, now it is clear that Israel is a problem but the bigger problem are the corrupt Arab leaders. Despite the abundance of natural resources, Arab leaders have chosen to become vassal states of Israel to secure own future and that of the corrupt elites, at the same time, they have to an extent taken the spotlight off the Israeli-Arab struggle by creating problems within each country.

Similarly, Arabs have so far failed to conquer Yemen, yet want to compete with and subjugate Persia. But Iran is defended by its geography, with mountains on three sides, swampland and water on the fourth, says Tim Marshall. Persia has seen its power and clout increase all over the region in the aftermath of 9/11. The US sanctions have encouraged Iran to become self-sufficient, including in defence. Iran’s WMD is not its nukes, which it does not have, but its ability to close the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf through which passes about 40 percent of the world’s oil.

The second critical choking point for ships carrying oil, other than Bab-el-Mandeb near Yemen, is the Suez Canal, currently under Egyptian military’s control. The Egyptian military has the blessing of the West. It cunningly and adeptly managed to kill three birds with one stone when the Arab Spring came to Egypt, in 2011.

  1. The military helped remove the then unpopular President Mubarak from power, while allying with the Muslim Brotherhood.
  2. The gullible public was allowed to let their steam out during the protests, albeit it was an exercise in futility.
  3. Finally, the military removed the Muslim Brotherhood a year later, killing over 800 protestors. The brutal suppression taught the Egyptians where the real power in the land is – in the hand of the military.

The failures of the economic policies and costly projects with a high risk of failure, initiated by Sisi, are creating more misery for the Egyptians. Sisi is planting the seeds of a second bloody uprising. I would not be surprised if he is toppled soon. His phony elections and referendums are a cloak to give the impression of democracy, in reality, under the veil, Egypt has thugocracy. But Egypt is not alone. As Tim Marshall says; “In impoverished societies with few accountable institutions, power rests with gangs disguised as ‘militia’ and ‘political parties’. While they fight for power, sometimes cheered on by naive Western sympathisers, many innocent people die. It looks as if it will be that way in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and possibly other countries for years to come.”

Yes, I agree with Tim, the future of the Arabs is bloodier than their recent past. Why? Because, “Sykes-Picot is breaking; putting it back together, even in a different shape, will be a long and bloody affair.” Did I understand the above statement, by Tim Marshall, correctly? I mean, Israel too is part of Sykes-Picot, and if Sykes-Picot is to be undone? Hmm. Would the Israelis, who have dual nationalities, stay and fight a long term war. Israel has no history of fighting decade long wars similar to those experienced by Afganistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Undoubtedly, it is the unnatural borders created mostly by the British, while leaving the colonies, that are the source of tension in most places, e.g. Kashmir, Middle East, North Africa and the Sub Saharan Africa. Kashmir dispute is most dangerous of them all. Control of Kashmir is considered vital for both (nuclear states) India and Pakistan, as their rivers originate from the Himalaya Mountains and pass through Kashmir. Pakistan is likely to face water shortages in the next few years. India is already experiencing drought in some states.

Ironically, the Himalaya has played the role of a protector for the other two neighbours, protecting them from each other, namely India and China. They both have huge populations and share a very long border. The only reason China and India have so far avoided invading each other is that it is practically impossible to advance large military columns through or over the Himalayas. Likewise, in the Russian Far East, it is geography that protects Russia.

Russia’s weak spot has probably always been Ukraine, this is the reasons why Russia made Ukraine toothless by annexing Crimea, after the coup d’état in Ukraine in 2014. For US and NATO allying Ukraine seemed a logical strategy as Ukraine has no mountains and it borders Russia. “If God had built mountains in Ukraine, then the great expanse of flatland that is the North European Plain would not be such encouraging territory from which to attack Russia repeatedly.”

I agree with Tim Marshall that “Overall there is no one geographical factor that is more important than any other. Mountains are no more important than deserts, nor rivers than jungles. In different parts of the planet, different geographical features are among the dominant factors in determining what people can and cannot do.”

It would be an understatement to say that Prisoners of Geography is probably one of the finest books on geopolitics to read. Tim Marshall’s book is insightful, informative and encyclopedic. He has thoughtfully explained nearly every major county’s geography and to some extent political history, as well as, their potential for growth and the dangers of war they may face in the near future. After reading the book I felt like going on global travel. No doubt travelling is the best activity for restoring the mind.

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